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Vinyl Tap: Tom Waits – Rain Dogs

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I get a new turntable and dust off some old records. Vinyl Tap #22:

People who live outdoors. You know how after the rain you see all these dogs that seem lost, wandering around. The rain washes away all their scent, all their direction. So all the people on the album are knit together, by some corporeal way of sharing pain and discomfort.

Back in the mists of time — the '80s — I was entering the lobby of the Wiltern Theater one of the five nights Elvis Costello and the Attractions were putting on their “Spinning Wheel” concerts. The shows comprised full-on festivities with all the festooned trimmings, as go-go dancers in cages frugged away amid a carnival-like atmosphere in a bright, colorful setting replete with props — the main one being a giant spinning wheel with a considerable assortment of Costello-penned song titles radiating out like rays of angry-young-man angst, alienation, and smart pop perfection.

A hands-down bar-none Barnum fun zone, a splendid time was guaranteed for all – especially since there was to be surprise celebrity moderators to randomly draw audience members’ names from a big drum. Where she stops nobody knows, but when she stops, the luckily picked pickee comes up onto the stage with much hoopla and confetti.

Anyway, when I walked into the lobby of the Wiltern, there was Tom Waits surrounded by some orbiting and over-zealous fans. As it would turn out, he was to serve as the evening’s master of ceremonies, in more of a carnival barker mode — a perfect choice, given the crass hard sell huckster persona he assumed in Small Change’s “Step Right Up,” in which he promises all sorts of unlikely miracles and marvels, though inevitably, “The large print giveth and the small print taketh away”: "That's right, it filets, it chops/ It dices, slices, never stops/ lasts a lifetime, mows your lawn…"

Waits didn’t look especially happy about the surround-sound mini-mob. I wanted to meet him but I also didn't want to be just another jerk taking up his time — I wanted to be the only jerk taking up his time. But before I kept walking on, he noted my hesitation and caught my eye, subtly nodding his head as if to invite me over. Emboldened and feeling a bit brazen as I was seemingly being summoned, I walked around to the other side and he took this occasion to turn from the crowd to greet me while the other fans got the hint and dispersed.

Needless to say, I was flummoxed and faltering: Waits reached out and shook my hand, and I slack-jaw-yokeled something aw-shucks-like about being a big-time fan — duh, yup yup – and he said in his gargling-with-gravel-and-ground-glass mellifluousness, "Thanks, man." I would like to think, and there was reason to believe, that he was also thanking me for extricating him from loitering lingerers and malingerers — audiophile philistines all!– but I'm not sure.

I did get the impression I could've probably stayed to talk with him — maybe we could have not only talked about the weather but we would’ve hashed out some solutions on what to do about it, dammit. But I was so flustered that what passes for a thought process within me shut down all communication skills. My brain seemed to have imploded — an entire synapse grid shut down. Whatta maroon!

At least Waits didn't turn away from me as a newer batch of fans approached him from the other side…

Anyway, I brought that same kind of circumspect wariness to my initial listen of 1985’s Rain Dogs — 19 songs and 54 minutes seemed daunting in those pre-CD days — but it wasn’t long before Waits’ music, like the man himself, had pulled me into the welcoming gravitational pull.

About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Vern Halen

    I prefer Swordfishtrombones to Rain Dogs or Frank’s Wild Years, but there are some classic cuts on all of these albums. Maybe because RD is in the middle, it’s the deepest of the three – there’s no end in sight as it were like there is on FWY.

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks Vern–while I like Swordfishtrombone, too, especially Down Down Down, Soldier’a Things and I used to play to death and Frank’s Wild Years, it’s mostly circumstances that intercede and affect judgement: In the time of Swordfish, I was too busy w/o a lot of spare time compared to RD period in which I got into that album a lot (but not enough leisure to backtrack to older albums enough to do them justice). Anyway, I love this part from Frank’s Wild Year:

    …his wife was a spent piece of used jet trash
    made good bloody marys
    kept her mouth shut most of the time
    had a little Chihuahua named Carlos
    that had some kind of skin disease
    and was totally blind.

  • tomfan

    anyone out there (in atlanta) have the setlist from last night, 8/1?, thx

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    tomfan–here’s the Atlanta set list if you still need it:

    Make it Rain
    Hoist that Rag
    Shore Leave
    God’s Away on Business
    ‘Til the Money Runs Out
    Blue Valentines
    Lucky Day
    Tango Til’ they’re Sore
    House Where Nobody Lives
    Don’t Go Into that Barn
    Lie to me Baby
    Whistlin’ Past the Graveyard
    9th & Hennepin
    Trampled Rose
    Get Behind the Mule
    Murder in the Red Barn
    Shake It

    Goin’ Out West

    Day After Tomorrow
    Heartattack & Vine

  • Condor

    Excellent commentary.

    My dearly departed wife used to call him the “leering wino-poet” and we used to chuckle whenever we put the vinyl on the turntable.


  • Mark Saleski

    love Rain Dogs…though it’s pretty near impossible for me to pick a favorite Waits.

  • tomfan

    thanks a lot gh, did you see the show? I am going next week (in det.),i can’t wait…

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    tomfan–unfortunately I didn’t see the show, but I stumbled across a “Tom Waits for No Man” blog that looks pretty interesting:

    Has a concert schedule–have fun at the Detroit show. Hope I get too see him, too–looking for west coast/SoCal dates.

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Condor–thanks for the comment. “Leering Wino-Poets”–good name for a band, too.

  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks Mark–I like the early stuff, too, especially Small Change and Closing Time. Waits is one of those artists who is admirable for contiuing to explore and experiment, record sales be damned.

    Since I’m on a bit of a Waits kick, I’ll soon be having an upcoming Vinyl Tap feature on the One From the Heart soundtrack, with Crystal Gayle. Music’s better than the movie, but the Coppola film is a visual treat.